HELSINKI — The Nordic countries have scaled up monitoring against a surge in missile testing by Russia on its heavily militarized Kola Peninsula, home to Moscow’s Northern Fleet and Arctic main combat forces.
The uptick in Nordic surveillance of Kola is also driven by the increase in Russian live-fire military exercises in the High North, and increasingly in areas close to the border with NATO-member Norway. The exercises have also featured simulated firings of anti-air, anti-surface and anti-submarine missiles.
In April, the Northern Fleet warships Pyotr Velikiy and Marshal Ustinov conducted missile-firing tests north of Norway’s Lofoten archipelago. In May, the warship Severomorsk tested missile and medium-range weapons systems in Russian waters close to Norway’s northern coastline.
Russia’s High North maneuvers in April and May included the test launch of Kinzhal anti-air missiles (NATO code name: SA-N-9 Gauntlet).
Norway’s military “maintains routine surveillance” on Russian ships operating near the country’s coast, said Lt. Col. Ivar Moen, a spokesman for the Norwegian Armed Forces. In the case of the Severomorsk, the ship was active in waters off the coastlines of the provinces Nordland and Troms.
Relations between Russia and its Nordic neighbors became strained in March when Norway and Finland accused Russia of intentionally disrupting GPS signals during NATO-led training exercises in the High North. Nordic governments filed protests with Moscow, claiming the jamming put both military and civilian aircraft operating in its northern territories at risk. NATO also pointed the finger at Russia when GPS signals were jammed during Trident Juncture exercises held in Norway in October and November 2018. In both instances, Moscow denied any involvement.
"Russia requested we show proof of GPS signals jamming, and we gave them the proof,” said Frank Bakke-Jensen, Norway’s defense minister.
Both NATO and the Nordic governments are also concerned over Russia’s development of new nuclear-ready missiles.
Moscow’s neighborly relationship with Norway has also been negatively affected by the joint U.S.-Norwegian investment to upgrade the Vardø radar station’s Globus sensor, which conducts high-level surveillance of Russia.
The Arctic-based Vardø military installation is located less than 20 miles from Norway’s border with Russia. The Norwegian government’s decision to approve the joint Norwegian-U.S. intelligence gathering operation at Vardø has elicited a mixed response from Norway’s defense community. While many in senior ranks back the venture, others suggest tension with Moscow could have been eased if Norwegian operators had undergone specialized training in the United States before establishing a solely Norwegian-manned operation at Vardø.
The rise in Russian missile testing and deployment on Kola has motivated Norway to lobby the United States and NATO to conduct more regular exercises in and commit additional forces to the region. NATO’s zone of responsibility in the area, covered by the collective-defense clause Article 5, runs from the Atlantic Ocean’s High North to the North Pole.
Russia reacted negatively to Norway’s demand for a stronger U.S. and NATO presence in the High North, as well as flights of American B-52 bombers during joint exercises with NATO close to Russia’s border.
"That Norway wants a higher NATO presence in the High North goes against the historical traditions of good neighborliness between our two countries. This incorporates cooperation in the Arctic region. By urging the greater presence of NATO and other Western forces, it is Oslo that seems to want to escalate tensions that could lead to the risk of increased military activities," said Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.
‘Portside’ missile launches
Increased missile testing by Russia on Kola includes the launches of “portside” cruise missiles; that means precision-strike, Kalibr-type cruise missiles have been fired from the multipurpose Severodvinsk (Yasen-class) submarine vessels while moored at its home port on the Zapadnaya Litsa naval base. The Northern Fleet’s westernmost base on Kola is located just 37 miles from Norway’s border with Russia.
The Northern Fleet’s new portside firing maneuver significantly reduces the time it takes to make weapon systems combat-ready. This is also the first time that Kalibr-type cruise missiles — which have a range of 412 miles and are used by Russia in Syria — have been launched from Russia’s new multipurpose submarine class on Kola. The range puts the missile within reach of potential targets in Norway, Finland and Sweden.
During the Cold War, Soviet ballistic submarines were equipped to fire intercontinental nuclear weapons from portside. Nordic military intelligence indicates Russia is moving forward with plans to arm its Yasen-class submarines with scramjet-powered, hypersonic Zircon cruise missiles.
Zircon missiles have a speed of up to Mach 5 or 6, and range of 312 miles when launched low, or around 462 miles if flying semi-ballistic. Testing of Zircon missiles is slated to take place on a select group of submarines, including the Kazan class, in 2020.
Northern Fleet forces have begun testing the new anti-aircraft Tor-M2DT (SA-15 Gauntlet) missiles in Novaya Zemlya, roughly 400 miles north of Kola across the Barents Sea. The tests were conducted against drone targets flying at different speeds and altitudes, above and below clouds.
The Tor-M2DT missile system — which is capable of detecting up to 40 moving aerial targets at a range of roughly 9 miles and altitudes of up to 39,000 feet — was specifically developed as a core part of Russia’s Arctic defense system. The missile system is earmarked for deployment to protect Russia’s key military installations at Franz Josef Land, Severnaya Zemlya, the New Siberian Islands, Novaya Zemlya and Wrangel Island. The system’s defense coverage will encompass all islands and archipelagos along the strategic Northern Sea Route that is under development to quicken shipping times between Europe and Asia.
The buildup of Russia’s missile arsenal on the Kola Peninsula is meant to demonstrate the country’s range of capabilities, according to Njord Wegge, a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.
“Recent missile launches are less an escalation of current tensions, but more a way for Russia to display its capabilities and posture as a military great power,” Wegge said.
Gerard O'Dwyer is the Scandinavian affairs correspondent for Defense News.